Everyone has seen them jarred in specialty shops.
They adorn our salads and dress our veal picatta.
They are a familiar condiment in every fine restaurant, easily available to every home cook. Salty and lemony, the caper is beloved on a bagel with smoked salmon and cream cheese and at home on vegetarian pizza. But: What exactly IS a caper? Where does it come from?
Capers are the unripened sun-dried flower buds of the Capparis Spinosa plant, a prickly perennial plant.
A cultivated caper plant grows to a height of about 2 feet upright, whereas an uncultivated caper usually grows as a vine, which can spread to about 7 – 10 feet. The caper plant is tolerant of saline soil conditions, hence it is mostly found near sea beaches. The leaves of the caper plant usually cover the soil, which helps in its conservation. The term ‘caper’ is used synonymously for preserved flower buds and young fruits. In many areas, especially in the Mediterranean, capers are collected from wildplants in peak growing seasons.The unopened flower buds should be picked on a dry days. Harvesting is carried out regularly throughout the growing season. In Southern Italy, caper flower buds are collected by hand about every 8 to 12 days, resulting in 9 -12 harvest times per season. The caper has been known since classical Greek and Roman times when it was called kapparis. The Greeks introduced capers to France around 600 BC.
Capers bear a similar relation to caperberries (semi-mature fruits) as squash blossoms (specifically the buds) to squash. Capers are the buds, not the flowers, of the spiny plant, Capparis Spinosa, native to the Mediterranean. The buds grow into a dark green fruit, the caperberry. Both capers and caperberries are sold pickled in brine. The flavor of capers may be described as being similar to that of mustard and black pepper. In fact, the caper’s strong flavor comes from mustard oil: methyl isothiocyanate (released from glucocapparin molecules) arising from crushed plant tissues. Capers are preserved either in vinegar or under layers of salt in a jar. Raw capers are bland flavored and need to be cured to develop their piquant flavor. Capers in vinegar are traditionally packaged in tall narrow glass bottles.
Caperberries are not as common as capers, at least not outside of the Mediterranean region. Caper berries are about the size of smallish olives, and are served up much like olives. But other than being salty from pickling, caper berries do not taste like olives. They taste more like capers, but milder and more fruity.The berries are full of small edible seeds.
Smaller buds (nonpareilles and surfines, both with less than one centimeter diameter) are considered more valuable than the larger capucines and communes (more than 1.5 cm diameter).
By Terri Ellen Donsker
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